Monday, December 22, 2008

My Year in Lists: Tim's absolutely definitive Albums of 2008

All right, this isn't the most defining list of 2008 music-wise, it is in fact a shortlist of albums I've acquired this year. But then, I wouldn't have got them without liking them, or if they were free, certainly not put them into an end-of-year list, so I've narrowed down this year's CDs into my top 25. Any similarities between my lists and others such as polls on God is in the TV Zine, The Guardian's website or even The Sun's (I wouldn't link...oh ok) are purely coincidental and only highlight how universal, eclectic and frankly spot on my music taste is. (My tongue is planted in my cheek as I write).

In January I predicted a few names of which most have made it into my albums list. Debuts as well, so they were hunches. Just pointing it out, y'know.

Haha. Anyway, the list (blog title comes from a Los Campesinos! song, they're at number 12). Without further ado, here it is:

1. Cats in Paris - Courtcase 2000
Frankly, this came out of nowhere. Back in August someone recommended them and linked to their MySpace and it was love at first listen. A Manchester four-piece, but one with the ideas, enthusiasm, quirks and guts to shame every band that ever stepped out of that city since The Smiths. An abundance of youthful creativity, Courtcase 2000 is a masterclass of micro-prog, songs squeezing a kaleidoscope of sounds and melodies, rhythms and instruments into four or five minute mini-operas, rich in vocals that whisper and shout, time signatures that take on a mind of their own, gorgeous string arrangements framing a tragic story of 'broken kittens', random instrumentals with French monologues over the top, bombastic chords that open 'lovelovelovelove', merry-go-round synths chortling to 'loose tooth tactile', perhaps the song of the year. It's almost twee, but it's so gloriously unhinged in its experimental, free flowing river of musical creativity that it deserves to remain undefined. Every British debut for the next five years should be measured against the sheer brilliance of Courtcase 2000, my album of 2008.
Listen to: Loose Tooth Tactile

2. MGMT – Oracular Spectacular
You can gauge much about this stunning debut from the cover. Its proprietors stand on a sunset beach awash with psychedelia in their get up of spangly scarves, bright trousers, make-up and wild hair. Indie-by-numbers this ain’t. Summer anthem ‘Time to Pretend’ kicks off proceedings, but as a benchmark is outdone by many of the album’s tracks – particularly the unbelievably gorgeous 'Of Moons Birds and Monsters' – which hurl together an American ‘60s guitar sound with modern woozy synths, snippets of playground chatter with haunting vocals, discofloor beats and progressive song structures with hazy choruses: above all astonishingly melodic and sparkling with ingenuity. A close listen reveals grimmer lyrical matter ('We’ll choke on our vomit, and that will be the end' anyone?) but such a mood is painted over by the cinematic colour of MGMT’s music, and supplants everything with a virtually unmatched-in-2008 sense of eclectic beauty.
Listen to: The Youth

3. The Mars Volta - The Bedlam in Goliath
Well documented are former ATD-I members Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez's dabbling in 'creative substances', but though such antics are now assumed to be fewer and far-between, there must be something unusual keeping the latter, in particular, going, because the driving force of this band keeps surpassing each ground-breaking LP with another. Not quite a year and a half since third album 'Amputechture', 'The Bedlam in Goliath' was a tour de force of blistering drums - thanks to incredible new sticksman Thomas Pridgen - polyphonic rhythms, free jazz style solos as well as maze-like layers of guitars, more extreme bludgeoning than before, all doused in Omar's trademark effects and topped with the ever-impressive vocal range of Cedric. After suffering (lazy) criticism for their meandering jams passed off as songs on previous works, 'The Bedlam in Goliath' tied up some of those loose ends and pooled the myriad ideas, sounds and influences into tight, progressive behemoths that heralded The Mars Volta's most exciting album since their landmark debut.
Listen to: Wax Simulacra

4. Foals - Antidotes
Although they were bordering on the precipice last year, the Dave Sitek-produced Antidotes blew this Oxford fivesome out of the water and into the arms of the waiting press to critical acclaim, indie club hits and storming live shows. A collection of icy, minimalist indie with endless delayed guitar lines that gently melted into the subconscious, packing enough of an electro edge to get the body moving and the energy levels kicking into gear. Singles such as 'Cassius' (this year's 'Helicopter'), 'Vessels' and 'Balloons' were all shining examples of the meticulously angular melodies and rhythms abounding on the album, softened with the occasional brass moment and impassioned cry. A wonderfully crisp and refreshing reinvention of an increasingly derivative genre.
Listen to: Cassius

5. We are the Physics - Are OK at Music
The fourth debut (of 13) in my list, and without doubt the most underground. And also, one of the most exciting. The Scottish group of Michael, Michael, Michael and a Chris created one of the best 'rock' albums of the year. 11 tracks of breakneck speed drums, off-kilter guitar hooks and stuttering vocal yelps, crashing and bouncing around with a schizophrenic energy that is all but out of control. Brilliantly deranged but measured with recognisable riffs and shouted choruses - if your benchmark for rock is Oasis, and things are getting edgy when you put on The Enemy, then you won't know what the fuck has hit you here.
Listen to: You Can Do Athletics btw

6. Operator Please - Yes Yes Vindictive
This one's a bit biased since they absolutely blew me away supporting The Go! Team in Bournemouth last October (2007). Not one of them were out of their teens at the time, and when Yes Yes Vindictive was released in March, they were still very, very young. In fact I went and got drunk with three of them in July when they played at sixtymillionpostcards in Bournemouth, and two of them weren't even old enough to be in clubs. Jeez. Anyway, the album is a gloriously youthful collection of perfect pop rock songs, no false pretences about emotion, scenes, sounds or styles. From the hammering indiepop of 'Leave It Alone' and 'Zero Zero' to the mature waltzing of '6/8', this was a jaw-droppingly accomplished debut from five Aussie kids. More hooks than a fishing equipment store, this 'baroque pop' album (the violin probably exaggerates this categorisation) was near-perfection in genre-crossing anthemic pop songs.
Listen to: Zero Zero

7. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes
Originally this didn't make my list, a) because it was just so obvious and b) because I came to it late. But when Mojo and Uncut magazines are making it their album of the year, and it simultaneously features in The Sun's top five, it's also obvious that omitting the sheer beauty of Fleet Foxes' self-titled debut would be a travesty. A cut of haunting close harmonies throwing back to a retro Americana, glinting over jangly guitar backdrops and bittersweet folk atmospherics, with the occasional sunburst in 'Ragged Wood' and 'Your Protector', Fleet Foxes might turn out to be a landmark album in contemporary American music. That it encapsulates a past American age, turning those influences into a gorgeous modern pop album promising much for the future goes to show how deserved these Foxes' acclaim has been.
Listen to: White Winter Hymnal

8. Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend
A lot has been possible in pop music recently, but almost everyone was taken aback by this quartet’s direct fusion of modern African influences (rhythm, percussion) with sparse guitars that consequently stormed the music industry. Switched-on nightspots have been plying an ever-increasing spectrum of listeners with singles ‘Oxford Comma’, ‘A Punk’ and ‘Mansard Roof’ for months now, and the universal appeal of this charming if erratic-sounding debut, as well as its knack for upbeat chorus hooks, means it has been strolling into best of lists everywhere.
Listen to: Oxford Comma

9. TV on the Radio - Dear Science
Three albums in, and it's no less of a struggle for Dave Sitek's main musical outlet - the brilliantly eclectic five-piece that is TV On The Radio. That Dear Science topped Guardian and GIITTV polls, featured in music publication lists everywhere and featured on TV spots does not mean that you can now stop an average Joe in the street and say "Do you think Dear Science is better than Return to Cookie Mountain?" However, TV On The Radio are anything but average Joes - they stir in the pop funk of, say, Gnarls Barkley with black soul, big beats with balladry and hazy electro, making for a thoroughly modern eclecticism that also contained their best choruses yet. It might have been a weird chemistry for some, but Dear Science had more than enough about it to hit that niche spot in everyone's music taste. Probably a nailed-on certainty for next year's Mercury Music Prize.
Listen to: Halfway Home

10=. Late of the Pier - Fantasy Black Channel
With the exception of We Are The Physics, perhaps, Late Of The Pier deserve plaudits for the freshest sound this year, a young band going about the matter of dismantling recognised genres by making a boisterous racket of synth, guitar and big beat madness that somehow fits the bill of quirky glam rock, bluesy grunge and electro punk. This is the debut that Klaxons should have made, but failed. It figures that Late Of The Pier should win next year's Mercury... but won't. Shame. Approaching the making music process with a similarly eccentric enthusiasm as Cats in Paris, Fantasy Black Channel was an utterly beguiling album, challenging but emphatically rewarding.
Listen to: Focker

10=. Black Kids - Partie Traumatic
Infectious party spirit, kooky lyrics and all-singing, all-dancing impishness. Partie Traumatic was in fact a bit of a disappointment, as the majority of tracks didn't stand up to the ghostly awesomeness of their Wizard of Aahs EP. However, Black Kids make it in my top 10 purely because said EP was about the best thing anyone anywhere in the world had heard as 2008 was born, and the fact that all four originals from it make the hairs on my neck stand up without fail. Had they not rushed the album and given their sound an unnecessary sheen (thanks Bernard Butler) it might have just been sitting nine places higher.
Listen to: Hit The Heartbreaks

12. Los Campesinos! - Hold On Now, Youngster
The internet's success story of 2007, this debut managed to deliver their early potential with a squeaky guitar-topped mesh of exuberant indiepop with wonderfully quaint lyrics, bouncy feelgood rhythms and a glockenspiel.

13. Elbow - The Seldom Seen Kid
You won't find another album this year as grandiose, heartfelt and shatteringly intimate in equal measures. A deserved Mercury winner, its rich textures and orchestral arrangements underpinning Guy Garvey's rasping soul is a stunner.

14. Bloc Party - Intimacy
Snuck out on the quiet, Intimacy hit the download stores almost before anyone knew, nevermind pirated a leak. A fusion of samples, drum 'n' bass and heavily-affected guitars, the tangled complexity of Intimacy eventually unravelled into some typically pioneering Bloc Party songs and the odd indie monster. That elusive 'Helicopter 2' still hangs over their head, though. And 'Talons' is not it.

15. The Long Blondes - Couples
Sadly this band are no more, although they might be on a mere hiatus. It's a shame, because Couples was the intimate loneliness of the post-one night stand bed to the dolled-up glam of the pull on 'Someone To Drive You Home'. It was as if that debut's insecurities had manifested into bitterness, with Couples being an LP of starkly cold indie guitars and an icy Kate Jackson on vocals. Hoping for a reunion in 2009.

16. R.E.M - Accelerate
A stonking return to form for one of the seminal artists of the last 20 years, Accelerate saw the three 'boys' thrash out a series of hard-rocking songs peppered with that stinging trademark R.E.M balladry - with renewed political vigour and some hot riffs, R.E.M showed they can still cut it in music today.

17. iForward, Russia! - Life Processes
Their debut was my album of the year 2006, and Life Processes saw much of the same intoxicating mix - playing with time-signatures, wailing vocals and spikey, growling guitars with snatches of searing melodies interspersed with the odd choir and synth. Unfortunately this group are also on a hiatus (damn it!) but their influence in the Midlands music scene will continue to be keenly felt into 2009.

18. Coldplay - Viva La Vida (or Death and All His Friends)
All credit to Chris Martin's troupe, who could have banked on shifting 50bn units with another album of lighters-aloft ballads a la Fix You and coffee table rock like In My Place that would be great for six tracks and then go flat. But they didn't, they returned with an album full of dark edges, perplexing mini-songs, fanfare-march singles and in short a brave new set of songs.

19. Young Knives - Superabundance
After the angular and brilliant debut, the trio of Knives returned with a much more accessible but equally infectious bunch of awkward hooks and brash harmonies, stomping rock songs with more meat than previous efforts. Lyrics were slightly repetitve but gave up anthemic indie choruses in, ahem, abundance.

20. Glasvegas - Glasvegas
The paradox of this band's name, alluding to the glamour and glitz of Vegas, is tapered by the gloom of every single song on this eponymous debut, the perma-sad Scots dishing up a sumptious helping of wall-of-sound meloncholy, lucious guitar layers of fierce emotion that had all who came across it wiping tears from their eyes and reminding loved ones that they are loved.

21. Guillemots - Red
It was always going to be difficult to match the patchwork-quilted genius of their near-miraculous debut, but Fyfe Dangerfield and co. gave it a good go. Just lacking in that multi-coloured spark that made Through the Windowpane such a joy, Red instead saw Guillemots dabble in straightforward pop songs, creating a wealth of gems that seemed to reference a catalogue of pop supremacy in 11 tracks of shimmering melodies and 21st century instrumentation.

22. Crystal Castles - Crystal Castles
From performances at Reading Festival to appearing on Skins, Crystal Castles came to usher in during 2008 the glitchy electronica that was ok for those outside of the dance market to embrace to its bosom, paving the way for a truckload of soundalikes (or soundabitlikes at least) to follow in their footsteps. Alice Glass's disturbed vocals over sometimes hypnotic, sometimes explosive dancefloor ravers soundtracked a year in off-kilter dance music that threw off the shackles of genre wars and made glo-sticks cool again. Again.

23. The Spinto Band - Moonwink
Following up their twee gem of 2006, the Spintos returned with an album rich in squeaky-clean indie musicality; that is harmonies, chord progressions, retro references: little nuances that are missing from many of today's bands' songwriting. It all makes for very pleasant, if sickly sweet, listening.

24. Fucked Up - Chemistry of Common Life
A hardcore punk band with a pointlessly vile name? That's almost as far removed as you can get from my usual listening tastes, but Fucked Up's wall-of-noise guitars, snarling spirit and pounding drums took punk to credible new planes in 2008, channeling aggression into huge riffs and chords, vitriolic smites at religion, and the occasional stadium-rock anthem thrown in. A superb, if abrasive, album of wholly renewed punk ethics.

25. Santogold - Santogold
I already know that this album is better than six or seven of the above. The trouble is I bought it yesterday and as such it's only fair that less than 24 hours of judgement does not cloud a list that spans consideration of the prior 364 days as well. A sparkling fusion of tribal, pop and world influences, Santogold's eponymous first album of eclectic pop gems throws a huge guantlet down for all solo females in 2009 (especially you Little Boots) to step up to.

If you've made it down here, well done. I love you. Thank you for reading, and if you buy one album this week, make it Cats in Paris - Courtcase 2000 please! Thank you again.

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